What is the proper way to be an Ally for the BLM Movement?
The title of this article is a trick question. There is not proper way to be an ally, mainly because being an ally is not about performing. The fact that many are trying to be “perfect allies” speaks to the standards of a perfectionistic culture that often idealizes, caters to, and opens the door for one standard of performing that most commonly fits the needs of white people in America.
Disclaimer: I am a white woman in America, and I am a therapist. I am not a perfect ally, and I probably never will be. This article is available to people of color and black people as well, though the purpose of this article is to help white people evaluate privilege and fight to understand allyship, which is not about you (if you are white) or me. It is instead about dismantling white supremacy and fighting to make sure that black lives are protected with equal privilege as white lives.
The work of being an ally often times requires failing over and over again. People generally don’t like to fail. People generally don’t want to feel ashamed, and get things wrong. White Americans, in America, are conditioned and primed to succeed. So much success is riding on achievement and perfection in the white, American value system, and if that game can be played, (and if there are no barriers- ie if you have white privilege), achievement and perfection can almost be achieved, at a great cost to others.
I would like to point out that racism has always been a core issue in America as we are a country founded on racism. Our education has taught us the bare minimum, and has sugar coated this, for us. For example, it was not until college that my curriculum included a more in depth history on government led massacres in America such as the Trail of Tears, where the government forcibly drove the small population of surviving Native Americans off of the land that they were promised to be able to keep so that the government could steal it, using murder and excessive force. The enslavement of Africans and the pg history of slavery was taught in middle school, however, dulled down and minimized in extreme ways. The civil rights movement was briefly taught in middle school but did not include any education around the concept of systemic racism, microaggressions against people of color and black people, police brutality, and current ongoing murders of Black Americans in the United States.
Many White Americans are shocked at this time to discover this history and the presence of racism in modern day America based on the widespread lack of education. Why hasn’t this education been valued or prioritized or deemed as fundamentally important in America? There is really no simple answer. Here is my reflection: in a system built for white people, by racist white people (yes, everything in America including capitalism, our school systems, the government, the police and military systems, ect was built in a time when white Americans were actively and openly racist and has not necessarily been adjusted to current times, or has been minimally adjusted), black lives were at first purposely not considered. And now, white Americans have had the privilege to be able to ignore this fact because it does not affect them, or it makes them feel ashamed, or it is too much for them to fathom the damage and pain that these systems still cause. The privilege to avoid is the same privilege that keeps white people safe: they do not feel threatened or afraid for their life in the face of police officers or court systems, and they do not have to consider if they are not being hired or are being treated differently at work because of the color of their skin.
If you are an American white ally and you care about racial injustice and about dismantling systemic racism in America, it is possible that you are experiencing a shame response or a fear response around being an ally in this moment. I have worked closely with these responses in my work as a therapist. The classic fear responses are the fight response, the flight response, the freeze response, and the cling responses. Here are some classic examples of how some of these responses might be showing up in allyship right now:
Dismissal/Denial/Dissociation : (This is not a fear response, but rather a common response to extreme emotions) What does denial of racism look like, and why would we deny it? The obvious example is a statement such as “Racism isn’t real” or “this country isn’t racist”. These statements are easy to pick out as denial statements. Some more subtle examples, some of which are not intentionally hurtful, are statements like “I don’t see color”, “I’ve never been racist”, or “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this country”. The reason that these well-intentioned statements specifically spoken by white people are hurtful are because they deny and dismiss blatant racism that is experienced on a daily basis by black people and people of color. Some examples of more subtle denial or dissociation are when white people focus singularly on their own issues during a time of a political movement around race, when racism discussions are front and center, and when a civil rights movement is in the forefront. Denial and disassociation are normal defense tactics that people use to avoid processing pain or feeling fear. In the case of racism, when white people are experiencing denial or dissociation around racist comments, racism at work, or around racist events such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, it is because they have the privilege to not have to think about it as their lives are not in danger.
Flight Response: When someone is afraid or is confronted with information that feels like too much for them, they may flee to somewhere else, both metaphorically or physically. In the case of racism, a flight response may look like this: maybe you are a white person witnessing a black person being pulled over and interrogated by police officers as you are walking down the sidewalk. Instead of staying to watch or film the interaction, you continue to walk because you don’t want to get involved or to get in trouble. In this instance, you recognize that there is fear and danger in the situation but you choose to flee (mainly because you have a choice, which in this situation, the black person being interrogated by a police officer does not). In order to show up as an ally if one has a tendency to have a flight response, one much challenge their own fears and their own tendency to flee in order to protect others. Another less obvious flight response may be avoiding talking about the current civil rights movement, changing the subject when the topic comes up, and avoiding talking to, say, family members of yours that you know do not support the movement or are explicitly racist.
Freeze Response: An example of a freeze response is being overwhelmed by information, by current events, and by social media, and simply not knowing what to do. Many white allies who are stuck in a freeze response right now are paralyzed by the current events of racism and by all of the options of how they should and could be showing up. They are also probably afraid of making a mistake around allyship. Thus, they might stay frozen in shame or fear and not do anything. Freeze responses are very hard to come out of. Here are some small steps to coming out of a freeze response and to help fight racism in America:
Call a friend and ask them to help you get involved.
Read a book or an article to help educate yourself on racism.
Donate, and share the foundation that you’ve donated too with your white family members and friends on social media or over email.
Ask your activist friends to take you to a socially distanced protest.
Bring your freeze response to therapy and try to work through it.
Evaluate your white privilege in a safe setting, with a therapist or another ally that you trust.
Fight Response: These allies are the people who are actively fighting to dismantle racism at this time. On the more active fight response end of the spectrum, these allies are white people who are joining the forefront of physical, in person protests during the coronavirus pandemic and are standing with black people and people of color in the face of physical injury, arrest, and tear gas perpetrated by the police force. In a less physical lens, a fight response could look like activism on social media, calling the government and representatives to affect change, actively donating, educating oneself, signing petitions, and sharing information on social media. From a clinical lens, when there is a trauma, having a fight response is the most helpful way to later move through the trauma and to affect change. Generally speaking, the people who can activate a fight response around a horrific event are least likely to develop post trauma stress symptoms. In order to fight, one must have something to fight for. White people who are actively fighting as a response to the severe racial injustice that has always been here but has more recently come to light recognize that they are fighting for others and against a system that ultimately benefits them personally.
If you’ve read this article up until this point and you’ve come to the realization that you’d like to be having a different response in your allyship, I’d like to give you some tips on how to shift your style. The first step is always awareness. What is your style, and how does it show up? When do you notice your shame or fear response? Once you begin to cultivate your awareness, you can shift your style. A good way is to take baby steps towards a different way of showing up as an ally. Dismantling systemic racism and hundreds of years of race related murders is going to be a monumental task in America, and it will likely require the awareness and energy of everyone to make a change. Creating a sustainable and long-term relationship with confronting racism is only the first step in affecting change and in healing the wounds that America perpetuates.
Bianca Aarons can be reached at 415.553.5346 or biancaaarons.com